“I think God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure”.
(Quoted from Chariots of Fire by Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell)
The story of one of Scotland’s greatest athletes Eric Liddell is told in the award
winning 1981 movie Chariots of Fire. Chariots of Fire is a must see for all sports and movie fans a like. For those of you have not seen the movie or do not know the true story of Eric Liddell, here it is.
Born January16, 1902 in Tianjin, China. Eric Liddell lived and went to school in China until he was seven, when his Christian Missionary parents sent him and his older brother Robert to the Eltham College Christian Boarding School in South London. They would see their family sparingly for the rest of their childhood as their parents continued missionary efforts around the world. At Eltham, the Liddell brothers would excel in athletics. Eric specialized in Cricket, Rugby, and Track. In 1921, Eric followed his brother to Edinburgh University, where he studied Pure Science and starred on the Rugby and Track teams for his school. This is where the movie picks up the story.
Eric Liddell would become the premier 100-meter runner in England while at school. His chief rival in British running was a Jewish runner named Harold Abraham. Eric Liddell faced Harold Abraham only once in the two athletes best event the 100-meters. Liddlell defeated Abraham by four yards. Abraham was crushed by the defeat as depicted in the movie and further dedicated himself to perfection.
The 1924 Olympics was the event both runners had geared their training and dreams toward. In France they would both represent England and the Crown in a time that their island country yearned to stand atop the world in running prestige. But in England, Eric Liddell would be faced with a great personal dilemma.
Liddell was a deeply religious man, one who took the commandment to keep the Sabbath Day Holy seriously. He always refused to run on Sundays. One of the movies greatest liberties was in showing Eric learning that the 100-meter heats in the Olympics would be on Sunday as he was getting on the boat for France. He actually was aware of the schedule for months, spending his time training for the 200 and 400-meter events despite the 100-meters being his best chance for Gold. There was no real inquisition by the British Olympic Committee or the Prince of Wales as the movie suggests. The real pressure applied on Liddell was to get him to participate in the 4×400 Meter Relay, which also had heats on a Sunday. Liddell stood by his principles and refused to run leading many in the British press to blame him for Great Britain’s third place finish in that event.
The 100-meter Gold Medal was won by Harold Abraham on July 7th. Eric Liddell was the first to greet Abraham after his victory. The movie leaves out Liddell and Abraham facing each other in the 200-meter Finals on July 9. Again, Liddell beat Abraham soundly earning the Bronze medal, finishing behind Americans Jackson Schultz and Charlie Paddock.
The next week would be the second event Liddell had trained for at the Olympics. He was not one of the favorites to win the 400-meters.
His best time going into the Olympics was 49.6. He did lower his best time to 48.2 to qualify for the Finals, but he only had the 5th fastest qualifying time. Thus, he was assigned an outside lane in the Final. He was handed a note prior to the 400-meter final which read “It says in the Good Book ‘He that honors me I will Honor’, Wishing you the best of success.” This note was not given to him by Jackson Schultz (as the movie showed), but by an American Masseurs. As the movie correctly shows, Liddell did take the lead early, and never trailed, winning in 47.6 seconds and a new Olympic Record (some say it was a new World Record, but that is disputed). Liddell said after the race, “The secret to my success over the 400 meters is that I run the first 200 meters as fast as I can. Then, for the second 200 meters, with God’s help I ran faster.” He was the first runner to treat the 400-meters as a sprint. Harold Abraham, after Liddell’s Gold Medal victory was the first to greet Liddell.
After his Olympic triumph Liddell returned to Scotland to finish his degree at Edinburgh University in 1925. He was the most celebrated person in Scotland, upon his return. Immediately after leaving college, however, he returned to China where he worked in the missionary field for the rest of his life. In 1934 he married a Canadian missionary, Florence McKenzie, they would have three daughters while in China. In 1941 the Japanese invaded China. Due to concern for his family, he sent his wife and children back to Canada. He remained in China to serve the needs of the Chinese people. He was captured by the Japanese in 1943 and interned at the Weihsien Internment Camp in Weifang, China. His influence on the camp was immeasurable. Norman Cliff wrote a book about life in the camp, The Courtyard of the Happy Way. He says of Liddell “The finest Christian Gentleman it has been my pleasure to meet. In all the time in the camp, I never heard him say a bad word about anybody.”
Eric Liddle died of a brain tumor on Feb. 21, 1945, five months before the allied liberation of China. After his death a camp survivor wrote “The entire camp, especially the youth, was stunned for days. So great was the vacuum that Eric’s death left.”
Kobe Bryant just this week made the news saying, “If basketball is the best thing I’ve done with my life, then I have failed.” A sentiment I believe is shared by most of the great athletes. They hope to be more than just figures of athletics but influential on individuals. I do not think there is much doubt that Eric Liddell lived to this standard.
“He gave me two things. One was his worn out running shoes, but the best thing he gave was his baton of forgiveness. He taught me to love my enemies, the Japanese, and to pray for them.”
-Stephen Metcalfe, a fellow Japanese prisoner in China